More of the same in the future
It seems to be clear many things are getting better(Rosling op cit) (Pinker, Enlightenment op. cit.). For optimistically looking at how technology can be used for progress and improving future possibilities take a look at The Oxford Martin Schools work (just one example), and the websites of Max Roser and Gapminder (Note: Evidence of Better).
There can be no doubt that we have and continue to get a lot better at some things, less people die violently than 30 years ago, life expectancy is increasing. Indeed the opportunity is for us to apply data to what we do and accelerate the process. There is a lot of good news (largely hidden in plain sight). So what is the problem?
The opposite danger to pessimism is to believe that everything is just fine and do nothing. The fact that we have, or are on the way to solving a lot of problems does not mean that the way we organise ourselves now is as good as it gets.
The hubris of the (current) winners
It is not just that the winner’s write the history, it is that they often fall prey to the hubris of thinking their version of things has triumphed and banished all opposition. Daniel Bell wrote The End of Ideology in the 1960’s. Francis Fukayama wrote the end of history and the last man in 1992 (Note: The End of History)
For us this means the peculiar form of “Capitalist-Democracy” as it is currently practiced in the USA and Europe. Since 1989/2008 the mood of triumphalism has waned, the whole neo-con (reference) endeavour is looking decidedly lacklustre and naive. Nevertheless it has had a profound effect on the world over the last 30 years and we should try to understand it.
This “triumph of now” based on who is curretly “winning” takes a number of forms.
One example of this school of thinking can be found in The Heel of Achilles (Bobbitt). This not only foresees the triumph of capitalism but the end of the dominance of the nation state and the emergence competing market states, some of which do not need to be territorial. This a a work on foreign policy from a US point of view it says little about the rights and duties of the citizen.
Another version is Francis Fukuyam's, The End of History and the Last Man. This saw history as being the battle for ideas that was (with the end of the cold war) now solved. All that followed would be, as Henry Ford said of History “one damn thing after another”. This view meant that those in charge were ill equipped to deal with the aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan and the 2nd Gulf War; Since then reinvigorated terror, 2008 and the Syrian Civil War have just piled on the agony.
Power block competition does seem to be back on the agenda (one of the challenges we face) and it is complicated by the political uncertainties caused by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – that seem to me, at best to leave the initiative with the up-coming contenders such as a revanchist Putin.
And yet it does seem as if there is a lot more new and positive thinking going on and left thinking is becoming more willing to challenge accepted nostrums. A generation change is taking place (1989-2019 is 30 years). It seems to me a moot point that the development of these new ideas can be completed in time to defeat the populism that is resurgent in the face of conventional failure. There is a widespread feeling of dissatisfaction; the unsuccessful ideas and their excesses (that led to the crashes of 2001 and 2008 and ill thought out foreign interventions) are being contested (Podemos, etc). It is beginning to feel as if old ways of doing things and established patterns of behaviour are no longer as secure as they have been for the last 30 years (Note: Possible Unfreezing).
We may get lucky, but can we afford to leave it to luck?
Unless you take the “this changes everything” view of global warming, the extreme predictions of the limits to growth, or believe in the singularity, the likelihood is that there will be a lot in the future that is recognisably from now.
It is possible that battery technology has a breakthrough, or we invent a machine that does what plants do (takes in air and recycles it minus the carbon dioxide), we can see population will peak at 10-13bn but it declines after that.
Whatever happens, and we cannot know what will, we still have to manage our way through it.
Our politicians don’t seem to be plugged into any of this – the political debate is dull nasty brutish and (anything but) short. We should surely be reinforcing the positive and taking concentrated action to avert the problems. What is taking us so long to respond – for now it seems the distraction of Brexit. A word of caution here – for remain or leave there is no doubt that this is monopolising the political agenda. If luck depends on timing this could be an example of luck running out. Just when there are big problems to challenge us we are deep in the minutiae of our trading relations with our neighbours.
Entrenched and incumbent power is also a problem. The criticisms contained in The Establishment and How they Get Away with it, and overlap of vested interests in the House of Commons (Jones and Williams) show that insiders control the rules. When things go wrong in this system the individual consumer can be blamed for making bad choices and the structural problem of the combination of salt, fat and sugar used for no good (nutritional) purpose but good for the maximisation of profit that goes unaddressed. Putting people in a narrative of blame is the most common way of helping those with power escape responsibility (Note: More Research Needed...).