Now What?
December 2, 2009 |  by Michael Anft

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Michael Vlahos: I think it’s likely we’ll see more migration, but it will be driven by other factors, including in North America. It’s possible we’ll see extreme desertification extending up to Nebraska. Mexico’s going to have to go north. A lot of America will have to go into Canada. And these are challenges that just haven’t been explored yet. I mean you could have hundreds of millions of Americans living in Canada.

Nathan Connolly: On the immigration question, the reducing of the restrictions on immigration is obviously an important story about American innovation, but it also coincides with a kind of systemic manicuring of the domestic population and the de-skilling of the domestic population at the same time. Culling the top

1 percent from the rest of the world and facilitating a brain drain of sorts in the Third World, that’s not really a recipe for an effective kind of global management, either. Globalization is a word we bandy about kind of fast and loose, but it’s kind of ironic given the fact that our workers once did come from sub-Saharan Africa, in the 17th century. I would like to hope that we would have a better moral imperative, just to echo your point earlier, but I don’t think we can rely on markets to provide that morality. If this current moment teaches us anything, it’s that individual self-interest is not the recipe for facilitating social justice.

Margaret Moon: At least it never has been.

Michael Vlahos: Part of the shifts in the U.S. that most worry me is that we’ve moved our value structure toward the exultation of not just consumption but self-interest, and that may have some harsh effects on our future. We’ve made the consumer a narcissist.

Michael Anft: How do we change that?

Michael Vlahos: Well, I think the great thing about crisis is that it forces change.

Role of Government

Margaret Moon: I want to add a question on what we can expect, what we should expect of the government in terms of this sort of crisis. How much are governments actually going to matter? For so long our model has been a national model, discrete national models. But this issue of immigration shows how porous all of our sort of emotional and physical borders are. What are we going to mean by government as this crisis plays out?

Michael Vlahos: Sixty percent of the world’s population has been left behind—effectively abandoned by governments. If you look at the transformation at the end of Antiquity, you see a well-governed and cohesive globalized world—the Roman world—transformed so it still was made up of states whose main relationship with Rome was what one author called “elite sociability.” And you see so many states in what we call the Third World today that are really very similar to states in the Roman world in the seventh century. We maintain this artificial structure of states as almost a way of protecting our preferred paradigm of a nation-state–centered world without realizing that below that all these identities are shifting. And the effective states today are really very few. The worry I have is that the U.S. today is engaged in places like Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries on earth, trying to maintain this fiction of the primacy of the nation-state. We bring cultural creative destruction to these societies. We clear the space. We allow the petri dish to germinate and flourish. And by doing so, we become critical participants in the very transformation that we fear, which is the hollowing out of the nation-state. One of the problems here is we see terrorism as deviant, criminal behavior, whereas what it really is is an expression of the emergence of new identities that are in competition with what residual elites still call a state. The result is that we fight all of these people that we shouldn’t be fighting—and there are many of them in Somalia, Yemen. We are a critical enabler. We’re engaged in this process that I don’t think we fully understand.

Michael Anft: Will it get worse in 30, 40 years? Or is there some sense that we can turn that around?

Michael Vlahos: My sense is that the energy shortage is going to hit fairly quickly and will be caused mostly at first by the resumption of global growth, and then things will become worse a little bit later when the quantity of liquid energy actually declines. This will stress the system to the point where the residual altruistic impulses of the U.S. are turned inward again. The U.S. has gotten much more selfish as a nation. And much of our relationship with the world is militarized.