While I was distracted with trying to figure out what college classes might benefit our civil discourse and public policy, the world was experiencing tremendous figurative and literal shockwaves. Consistent with what I've been arguing here and elsewhere, we really haven't worked out the narrative for this new world.
Remember November of 2010? It was only four months ago according to the calendar but in other ways it feels like one of those alternative universe timelines they so enjoyed on Star Trek. No, the new year has been far more significant than simply hanging up a new calendar.
We've seen peaceful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. We've seen peaceful revolts met with governmental and mercenary force in Libya and Bahrain. We've seen storms, earthquakes and flooding in Queensland and New Zealand. And, shockingly this week we saw earthquakes, tsunamis, and radiation leaks in Japan.
Pundits have felt free to challenge the administration on how quickly they responded to Egypt and how we want a government that is pro-western. The challenge in Libya is that we 1) are faced with human rights abuses that 2) are disrupting the normal flow of oil. What should we do to protect our way of life? What should our response be to Japan? When the Japanese auto industry shuts down due to power outages, how will that impact employees here in the states? When Japanese tourism falls off in Hawaii, how can we aborb the loss of revenue?
There was a time in American history when the oceans truly separated us from the rest of the world. For periods of time prior to the World Wars, we thought it best to stay on the sidelines. But global economics, governmental interconnectedness, ease of travel, and rapid technology have changed all that. We can no longer manage isolationist sentiment (in spite of what Ron Paul says).
But it is also true that we can't make things happen. We can't make Kadafi behave appropriately toward his people. We can't stop nuclear development programs by fiat. We can't guarantee a stable supply of oil to fuel our cars.
Take oil as an example. With the disruptions in the middle east, gas prices started to rise. And right away, folks were arguing for more drilling in ANWAR, more fracking in the Midwest, or plans for dipping into the Strategic Oil Reserve. Why? Because gas prices were hitting $4.00 per gallon! Now, whatever you believe about a depleting oil supply (it really is) or oil company profits (they're too high), everyone has to agree that supply and demand is a key factor in the price of oil. So a disruption, or even a state of uncertainty, will raise the prices. But without a disruption, prices are still going up because demand is increasing exponentially. The rapidly developing economies of China, India, and South Africa want the increased standard of living we've been promoting to them for decades. As they buy cars, improve highway infrastructure, and then buy more cars, the demand for oil will increase. It's not simply that we buy oil from countries that don't like us, as conservatives like to say. It's that other people are buying their oil as well. No amount of domestic drilling or despoiling of natural lands will change that fundamental equation. We will have to move to other fuel sources. But we will do that to compete with other nations (like China) who are already moving forward on that front. We'll try to catch up, if we can generate the political will to make that happen. But it's not up to us. We can't make things happen to meet our preferences (maybe we never could, but I'm suggesting that this combination of events will make that reality clear).
Oh, there are still those living in that alternative universe that was November 2010. This week Glenn Beck suggested that bad things were happening around the world because we aren't paying attention to the Ten Commandments. His call was for us to reflect on what we've done wrong as a society. But why would the Japanese have to suffer death, destruction, and radiation poisoning because of social currents? Not only is it really, really bad theology, it makes no sense to argue that the world suffers because of America's ills.
It's not about us. And we can't really do much to change things. We'll always be invited to sit at the table, but we just don't get the big chair anymore. The sooner we get our heads around this, the better off we'll be.