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GEOPOLITICS

What will go wrong in 2023 – all aboard the Dystopia Express

What will go wrong in 2023 – all aboard the Dystopia Express
Photos: EPA and Pixabay. Graphic: Jocelyn Adamson

Peering into the future is not for the faint-hearted, but we have done it anyway. It turns out that next year might not be as bad as some expect it to be — though it could be for Vladimir Putin.

In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus), a song by Zager and Evans:

In the year 2525, if man is still alive
If woman can survive, they may find…

Trying to predict what will happen over the next 12 months is just an educated guess – but we can extrapolate from all the dangerous signs and dark portents that we see around us. Travel with us into the future as we contemplate some darker possibilities for 2023.

Niels Bohr, the famous nuclear physicist, and baseball great and champion malaprop-coiner Yogi Berra once shared the same thought, saying: “Prediction is hard, especially about the future.” Regardless of the pitfalls of such predictions, we offer a few guesses about what might go seriously wrong in 2023. So, take a deep breath and read about a possible future.

Towards the end of 2022, the world focused on the Sharm el-Sheikh COP-27 climate conference. At that meeting, there were demands from the nations of the South for financial relief from the effects of climate change, as well as to offset the high costs of reshaping economies towards greener energy. Grave crises focus attention – even if they don’t provoke action.

Winter in the northern hemisphere – from December 2022 on to March 2023 – was a very dry one, with record-low levels of snow pack in the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains. Nonetheless, the relatively mild temperatures of that winter generated early bursts of brush and ground cover. But, in summer, that brush dried out and became tinder for seasonal fires.

The meagre snow pack also meant less ground water or soil moisture. Then, once the now usual summer forest fires began, they spread so quickly that fire fighters across the Pacific Northwest were overwhelmed by the blazes, which became one giant vortex of destruction. Airports from Vancouver to Phoenix closed for weeks because of the lack of visibility, and the high temperatures and terrible air quality produced massive spikes in respiratory deaths.

The traffic on the clogged highways fleeing the West to the Midwest and beyond soon rivalled the great migrations of the 1920s from the Dust Bowl – even if most hoped to return to what was left of their lives and homes. The federal government eventually had to declare a state of emergency across the entire region; to call up the National Guard to maintain order; and, as a last resort, to suspend civilian law in many states to deal with the crisis – something that had not occurred nationally even in the Civil War.

Greene space lasers

Amidst this economic and societal turmoil, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene appeared on television and online to remind that she had predicted this sequence of events (with divine guidance) about vast fires caused by space-based lasers financed by the Rothschilds and George Soros.

Then she announced her 2024 candidacy for the presidency, offering plans for religiously inspired “reforms” to limit the rights of anybody who failed to acknowledge her prophecies. Many of Donald Trump’s previous supporters (and even the former president himself, sotto voce) joined Taylor Greene’s crusade, given her rising popularity and the fear that it inspired in the minds of other would-be Republican candidates. While the election was a year ahead, some Republicans announced they could not support Taylor Greene and promised instead to back a unity ticket with the Democrats, if they could pick the vice presidential candidate and have a share of senior appointments. Commentators argued that, in this crisis, the Republican Party was headed for the fate met by the Whig Party when it disintegrated in the national strife that led to the Civil War.

Meanwhile, vast jungle fires continued to be set in the Amazon Basin by informal settlers and ranchers, and even from natural conditions, despite changes in national policy under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The massive fires also fed disastrous atmospheric conditions as strong winds drove soot and smoke towards the capital of Brasilia and the country’s coastal urban areas. The resulting economic crisis provoked widespread unrest in Brazil, exploited by former president Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters. They demanded new elections by the end of 2023 to get the country a leader who would take charge in the face of this crisis.

Indonesia and Democratic Republic of the Congo, the globe’s other two great tropical forest regions and massive carbon sinks, were also suffering from devastating fires. The former was exacerbated by the construction of a new national capital on the island of Kalimantan amidst a vast forested zone. And continued razing of forests on other islands in the vast nation continued in order to create space for wide expanses of palm oil monoculture. In the Congo, meanwhile, never-ending warfare in the eastern region, largely caused by the M-23 armies, produced yet more devastating forest fires as hundreds of thousands of people were on the move, desperate to put space between themselves and the M-23 bands.

Downturn

The roiling impact on international and national travel from all these disasters and further impacts on economic activity made a global economic downturn virtually inevitable.

Contributing even further to the unnerving dislocations were new developments in China, the world’s second largest economy. First there was a run on many of the nation’s banks as smaller regional banks proved dangerously overextended in the country’s housing and real estate market bubbles. But the continuing Covid lockdowns in many cities also precipitated waves of street rioting that started at the end of 2022, in the face of a lack of basic services and food supplies because of the severe lockdowns. China’s GDP growth actually dropped to under 1%, with predictions of an actual recession about to occur.

The knock-on effect of Chinese economic distress was quickly and widely felt throughout Asia – and beyond – as supply chain networks again came under sustained pressure. Failures of thousands of small and medium enterprises – and more than a few industrial giants – were giving rise to fears of a global economic depression at a level unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Supply chain-related shortages – including food and fertiliser – increasingly afflicted other nations as well (including many in Africa), and urban disturbances and reports of rural famines (due to a lack of fertiliser, pesticides and seeds) were now common.

Writing in Foreign Affairs in November 2022, international economist Mohamed El-Erian had already warned of fundamental shifts in the global economic landscape. As he wrote, “The longer households, companies, and governments fail to recognise and respond to the structural shifts taking place in the global economic and financial system, the harder it will be to mitigate the risks and to seize the opportunities associated with these changes. The world isn’t just teetering on the brink of another recession. It is in the midst of a profound economic and financial shift. Recognising this shift and learning to navigate it will be essential if the world is to arrive at a better destination.”

But, throughout 2023, most governments were too concerned with their immediate difficulties to focus on the larger economic restructuring El-Erian had warned about.

Ukraine invasion

Meanwhile, in 2023, Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine only brought disappointment to the invaders. While their rocket, missile, and drone aerial attacks continued to exact a horrific price on civilian life, the defenders continued to nibble away at territory held by the invaders, despite profound damage to the country’s cities, and its transportation and energy infrastructure. However, the Ukrainians’ military continued to be fortified by state-of-the-art weapons from Western nations and was making increasingly effective use of real-time electronic information. The result was the Russian army continued to bleed personnel and materiel at a level it could not replenish, even with the assistance of dodgy international friends like Iran.

The cuts in Russian oil and natural gas supplies to Western Europe were painful, but EU multinational cooperation and new suppliers held off the worst of that crisis through the winter at the beginning of 2023.

This logistical nightmare on the war front was increasingly mirrored by supply problems putting growing strains on Russia’s home front. Food riots broke out in cities and the stream of war fatalities led their families to join anti-invasion protests taking place in many cities.

By the second year of the war, it was clear Russia’s military leadership cadre – tired of the constant replacement of its frontline generals – had had enough of the costs that were resulting from Vladimir Putin’s war of choice. It was a war with no clear objectives other than destroying a nation their leader insisted was an integral part of Russia.

Then, suddenly, on May Day, a group of Putin’s senior officials and generals successfully manoeuvred to relieve him of his position on grounds of his increasing ill health and rusticated him to a spa in Sochi. They then elected to carry out a staged, full withdrawal from any Ukrainian territory still under their control; and they sought a negotiated ceasefire and proposed negotiations without preconditions on the future of the Donbas and Crimea.

The question of reparations was left for future negotiations.

That precipitous sea change in policy did not, however, calm their nation and the Russian military was compelled to use force to re-establish control over several of the country’s cities. Banners recalling that famous “Bread, Peace, Land” slogan from 1917, with the word “Land” visibly crossed out and replaced by “Freedom,” began appearing spontaneously on bridges and highway overpasses, as well as in communications passed from computer to computer via VPNs.

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Cumulatively, these events meant Russia’s political stability had become increasingly problematic towards the last months of 2023. The Russian state itself was facing pressures by ethnic minorities such as Chechens, Tatars, Buryats and Ossetians, among others, who sought autonomy inside Russia, even as debates about their independence broke out.

To outside observers, as well as many Russians, the actual breakup of Russia had become a real possibility. The suddenly vexed question about the effective command and control over Russia’s nuclear arsenal became a hot topic for analysis in dozens of think tanks – and in the intelligence and defence establishments – of many nations around the world. (Increasingly, it seemed like an echo of the breakup of the Soviet Union.)

Taiwan Strait

In the Far East, a potentially catastrophic conflict that would have resulted from any hostile clash between air patrols from Chinese bases close to the Taiwan Strait and American carrier-based jets from their ships in the South China Sea was just barely avoided. On the Double Ten holiday (Taiwan’s national day) a Chinese and an American plane actually collided mid-air, with the combined loss of five crew members.

The incident quickly led to urgent defence mobilisations by the two potential combatants, but only the growing domestic crises inside those two nations (see above) precluded events from moving beyond some mutual, angry chest thumping. But this near-miss propelled an embattled Joe Biden and an increasingly pressed Xi Jinping to agree that broad-based negotiations on all outstanding issues should begin immediately. Taiwan would not be a party to the negotiations.

Elsewhere, in Western Europe, in the face of the global recessionary trends, a growing petition drive in the UK quickly reached two million signatures – and kept climbing – calling for negotiations to rejoin the EU, although the government could not decide which way to move on the issue. The turmoil in Iran that had begun in late 2022 continued through the year until the incumbent government promised reforms and a general loosening of restrictions on personal attire and speech. But the situations in Syria, Israel and the West Bank/Gaza regrettably remained as they had been for many years.

Climate

But the most important development in 2023 was a severe, unanticipated, combined meteorological/climate one. One strong typhoon in a season of many strong tropical storms, instead of heading on the usual path towards East Asia, turned eastwards and struck with full force at the tiny islands and atolls comprising one of the Pacific Ocean’s micro-states – a nation whose highest land altitude was less than a hundred metres high. Combined with an unusually strong neap tide, the islands were utterly submerged, the country’s settlements and fragile infrastructure destroyed, and most of its population washed out to sea or drowned in the lagoons.

Coincidentally, the country’s president was in New York City for the UN General Assembly’s opening plenary session. In his speech, he echoed the way Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie had addressed the League of Nations in 1936, just as his nation was under attack by Mussolini’s Italy. He had warned Western democracies – to no avail – about the fascist storm that was soon to break upon them.

This time, the despairing leader told the UN General Assembly he was now a man literally without a country. His was the first nation to vanish because of climate and weather, and he warned the world’s leaders the climate apocalypse his nation had encountered meant the rest were living on borrowed time. After his speech, the UNGA applauded and voted for a special session to consider his words and to produce a special report, following further studies. The despairing, distraught president then joined a monastery in the mountains beyond Dharamshala, India.

Impossible? Check back in December 2023. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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