Scientists have just discovered a planet potentially capable of sustaining human life. The bad news is: this isn't it.
Headline after headline from around the world in the past few days suggests we are hitting a point of dysfunction and conflict that could have everyone yearning for the existential threats but relative order of the Cold War years in no time.
In terms of our literal ability to sustain life, you have news that climate talks are going nowhere fast, you have one of two political parties in the most powerful nation in the world running on the premise that climate change isn't really happening (at the same moment that you have real data suggesting that we are emitting more carbon than ever), and you have some past leaders on climate, like the Europeans, starting to backtrack, so obsessed with their own economic failures that they are thinking they don't need to add competitive drag by actually making rules that protect the earth.
Of course, those European economic failures are unnerving in their own right. While they are not a direct or immediate threat to our ability to sustain life on the planet, as noted above, Europe's decline into economic chaos and the inevitable impact that will have on both its agenda and its influence will detract from its influence on a host of survival-related issues -- from climate to non-proliferation -- on which it has played important and constructive roles. Some of its influence is likely to shift to emerging powers that are inclined to move more slowly or not at all on these issues.
Further, of course, you have the fact that the Eurozone crisis is indicative of a breathtaking failure of leadership worldwide. Individual political actors and major institutions are frozen like the icy, lifeless surface of less hospitable planets. Has there been a moment in memory when so many leaders of so many major countries were so inept or powerless? When so many institutions were failing or outmoded?
It's not just the Europeans who seem dedicated to living out a version of Churchill's critique of Americans by trying every inadequate response to their economic collapse before -- one hopes -- ultimately arriving at an adequate one. Japan doesn't actually have a government anymore, having replaced it with what is essentially a permanent crisis. The U.S. political system is so corrupted by money and riven by mindless ideological rifts that it literally can't meet its most basic constitutional obligations. And that doesn't even begin to take into account the vacuity of the presidential campaign process or the choices it is offering up to the American people. It is unclear what revolution in the Middle East will produce but it seems unlikely that it will make the region any more stable or prosperous any time soon. Pakistan, arguably the most dangerous nation on earth, has almost two fully-formed competing governments operating within its borders. Russia's elections were a sham orchestrated by an old-school autocrat who didn't even manage to put his thumb on the scales terribly effectively.
No, we seem ill-equipped to address the problems we have or to forestall the development of new ones. Further, it could well be that this failure of political leadership is not an accident of the moment. Systems in the world's more developed countries are increasingly serving the needs of richer members of society at the expense of poorer ones. A new OECD study sees inequality getting worse in the OECD. Personally, I can't help but conclude that there are very significant economic actors who benefit from seeing weak government and weak leaders, and that we are now reaping what they have sowed. Corporate power grows while national power recedes. This is a formula for higher year-over-year profits but, in a world in which the average corporation spends something like .01 percent of its revenues on "giving back," it suggests that companies are really not the ones we can depend on to look after the future of life on the planet. (We need the companies ... we just need to restore better balance.)
Growing inequality suggests growing social division and political tension and further stasis. Meanwhile, in the interests of time and reader mental health, I have not gone into the likelihood that we are on the verge of a new boom in nuclear weapons proliferation (led by the nuclear arms race that will sweep the Middle East after Iran announces it has developed a bomb). I have ignored the growing likelihood of major pandemics that will be accelerated by modern technologies and not fully contained due to institutional weaknesses and lack of funding, the growing risks of almost permanent cyber incursions slowing economies and growing tensions, the deep structural flaws in the international financial system, the likelihood that we may see more unrest in more flashpoints worldwide than at any time in recent memory (from Africa across the Mideast and to the subcontinent ... not to mention Mexico and points south of the U.S.), and ... well ... other really bad things.
All of which brings me back to the news that astronomers peering into the Kepler telescope have discovered a planet akin to our own. It's called Kepler 22-b and it's roughly 600 light years from earth. Admittedly, its orbit of its sun is only 290 days, which means years would come and go more quickly and, frankly, I'm finding they're going a little fast for my taste even here on this planet. But the planet does exist in what is known as a Goldilocks zone, where conditions for life may be "just right." And since there seems to be substantial evidence that we are leaving the Goldilocks zone here on Earth, I, personally, am going to turn my attention to figuring out just how to pack for a 600-light-year journey. I've always wanted a second home anyway. And while it may be a long way and I may arrive to find no life at all, it seems unlikely I will find a greater leadership void than we are experiencing here in our little corner of the universe at the moment.
David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.