So, I'm seeing a bunch of disturbing news headlines in the new year. Mass sex attacks in Cologne on New Year's Eve would be one (and I want you to think very hard about precisely whose political agenda benefits from the different kinds of spin that can be placed on this story depending on how it is framed). Poland's constitutional court and civil service being rapidly brought under control of the Law and Justice Party (and what is it about neo-fascists and their obsession with touchstone topics like dignity, law, the church, and justice? Again, read the link I just gave you—it's part of the instructions for assembling the jigsaw puzzle of politics in the 21st century). Saudi mass executions are part of the same picture if you step back and look for the edge of the frame.
What is the news (as opposed to popular entertainment and celebrity gossip) going to be like for the next decade? Let me give you a forecast.
(Note: As usual, there's a lot of meat in the hyperlinks. You won't get the most out of this essay unless you are familiar with their content.)
There are three big determinants of the long-term geopolitical weather report:
Global climate change
Human reactions to global climate change
Let's take it from the top.
Global climate change doesn't mean a uniform "everywhere gets X degrees warmer" shift in temperatures; the weather is a dynamic, chaotic system, and what climate change means is that more energy is being pumped into driving atmospheric and oceanic currents, with unpredictable but generally more energetic consequences.
A bunch of conflicts are breaking out, or resuming, because chunks of the planet are becoming increasingly prone to extreme weather conditions. The UK just had its wettest December ever, with more than double the normal rainfall and extensive floods taking out the centers of major cities. Part of the blame lies with local cupidity, greed, and myopia in planning land drainage policy, but the rain itself doesn't respect national boundaries. Similarly, chunks of the USA got hammered, as did several South American countries ... in fact, everywhere you look, the weather is out of whack. In extreme cases this is leading to actual open warfare—the Syrian civil war and the rise of Islamic State, for example.
A side-effect of this is mass migration on a scale we haven't seen since the end of the second world war as people try to flee war and disaster zones.
Mass migration drives political backlashes everywhere, with racist clowns marching in front of the band (did you think I just meant Donald Trump?) and nativist anti-immigration groups crowding behind them. I'm not going to go into the social roots of xenophobia other than to note that (a) bigotry is fractal, and (b) insecure, threatened hominids put on threat displays right back at whatever they're scared of. Also, (c) a constituency of insecure, threatened hominids are easily led and profitably milked, which attracts an endless supply of sinister racist revivalist huckster politicians. (This is the Hitler as social entrepreneur theory: he wasn't uniquely evil, he just happened to be the first to get out in front and lead.) More to the point, every nation that isn't impoverished or devastated by climate change will see a wave of immigration, and every nation undergoing a wave of immigration will see a nativist political reaction.
The nativist backlash is inevitably going to be inflamed by the Martian invaders, who are all in favor of the free movement of capital but not labor (hint: this is Marxism 101, and if you don't believe me, go look at the requirements for a Tier 1 investor visa). Restricting transnational mobility for the proles/serfs/99.9% is part of the program and plays well to the nativist strand in climate change politics, which is why unless you've got a few million burning a hole in your back pocket you'll find it really difficult to legally immigrate into the UK or USA or other top-tier countries from outside the developed world. And why all our corporate-owned media (that is, 95% of them: Reddit is owned by Conde Nast, The Times and Fox News and 90% of the newspapers in Australia are owned by Rupert Murdoch, and so on) are banging the drum against immigration, at the behest of their (investor visa equipped) owners.
Nativism meshes with religious ideology as well as politics, of course. It serves the purpose of the right wing in the west very well to have a demonic-seeming Islamic adversary intend on exterminating Christianity. And it serves the interests of Da'esh very well indeed to have an adversary in the west who cack-handedly bomb civilians and rant against the evils of Islam so that they can strike heroic poses against the infidels. As with the communist/capitalist cold war, there's an element of posturing-in-the-mirror going on here. Both capitalism and communism take as holy writ the ideas of the Enlightenment and of society organized around industrial development and division of labour: compared to the ancien regime it was essentially a sectarian squabble between nearly-identical radical factions. Christianity and Islam are both evangelical, messianic, monotheistic religions with a patriarchal ideology and a bunch of lifestyle restrictions (mostly affecting women) bolted on the side; in both cases, most of their followers are peaceful, but we don't pay attention to them—we only notice the scary fundamentalist terrorists on the other side of the fence.
(Random discursive note: this being an anglophone blog, some of you are probably thinking, "but, but, hijab!" To which I will note that veiling women as a religious practice is a long tradition in Christian cultures which only fell into neglect historically recently, and we have equally batshit taboos which we are mostly oblivious to—fish don't notice the water, after all. Almost all the practices conducted by IS that we consider to be barbaric were just business as usual in the western world until historically recent times. Sometimes until very recently. Let's have no stone-throwing here: digression over.)
Economics is another aggravating problem. The global financial system crashed in 2007/08 and was only revived by a brisk dose of hyperinflation. The public didn't really notice the effects of the hyperinflation because it happened globally, with all the central banks engaging in quantitative easing more or less simultaneously (or "printing fiat currency" as the goldbugs call it): the price of exports didn't rise or fall as the tsunami of soft money rushed past in the ocean depths below the keel of the commodities markets. But we're now seeing oddly cheap oil (in turn aggravated by the traditional Sunni/Shi'a cold war that's been running for the past 1300-odd years, which in turn has been inflamed by climate change in Iraq and Syria and the final collapse of the Sykes Picot agreement and its legacy in the former Ottoman Empire). Oil and energy economics in general are now being affected by the human reaction to climate change which, while belated and half-hearted, is to stop shitting in the bed you're sleeping in: the switch to renewable energy is under way globally and the cost per kWh of photovoltaic power is now at grid parity and will soon undercut coal in most of the world (the IEA are putting a brave face on it but they may be next, too).
This is a toxic combination. We've just weathered the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and we're undergoing an infrastructure crisis (due to climate change) and the extinction of an economic backbone industry—admittedly one we will be far better off without: coal and oil pollution directly kill tens of thousands of people even in developed nations—which will ultimately require the replacement of tens of trillions of dollars' worth of fossil fuel infrastructure worldwide. Add nativist/racist/right wing politics on top, from Hungary through Poland (above) and Russia and it really looks like we're in for a replay of the 1930s.
I've missed out a few bright spots.
To a time traveller from 1985, China is doing unelievably well. They're working through the huge demographic bulge created by the now-abandoned one-child-per-family policy, and their work force is going to start shrinking in another couple of decades, but for the time being they're reaping the benefits of a much better educated and trained workforce (at least compared to their often-illiterate peasant grandparents) and rapid development. China overall is trying to do what Japan and South Korea did in the second half of the 20th century, with many signs of success (and the negative side-effects too, which explains the Central Committee's conversion to the cause of fossil fuel reduction). India is also developing rapidly, and those two countries combined equal the entire world population in 1950. Lifting China and India out of poverty is, if it happens, going to be one of the great human triumphs of the first half of this century, an almost incalculably huge improvement in the overall human experience—if we (and they) don't drop the ball. We're also seeing development in large parts of Africa. North Africa is a mess, with the spill-over from the Middle East conflicts and climate change as a driver for immigration and strife.
But anyway, here's my summary of the next decade:
The weather's going to get worse.
We're going to see more and more unscrupulous huckster types leading revanchist, nativist right wing political movements and banging the anti-immigrant drum, world-wide. Civil rights include the right to free movement; this makes civil rights an easy scapegoat and target for the angry populist nativists. Sensible media capitalists (those with a sense of self-preservation) will pander to these assclowns. Courageous media capitalists (those with the odd ethical bone in their body) will stand up to them and get themselves assassinated or imprisoned. Luckily we have the internet except, oops, Facebook owns it and FB will do whatever they're told. (And if not Facebook, Google. The internet is infrastructure, and if annoying dissidents are drinking from the pure tapwater of honest news and you own the pumping station ...)
This is going to happen both in nominally/formerly Christian countries and in the Muslim world. Both sides will see each other in a mirror and hiss like cats, but it doesn't really signify anything. Fear of terrorism is a rallying point, so expect unscrupulous politicians to use crack-downs on their local minorities to bolster their popularity. This will of course include crack-downs on civil rights because nothing annoys a political entrepreneur trying to posture as a strong leader like a civil rights lawyer with a good case.
The ongoing 1300-year Sunni/Shi'ite cold war will continue, sometimes hotter, thanks to climate-induced disruption in the Middle East and the eventual collapse of the Saudi petrochemical economy. The ongoing Saudi succession crisis isn't going to help (as we just saw).
None of this political posturing is going to do jack shit to roll back the already-in-train effects of climate change so the immigration pressure will continue, driving trends (2) and (3).
Don't buy long term coal or oil futures.