Archive for December 2009
The future isn’t something that people like contemplating these days, quite probably for the same reasons of disappointment and foreboding that Andrew Barton described earlier this month.
For decades, the twenty-first century was implicitly the great beyond, the city on the hill, and there was no alternative to it being a good and decent place where technology would work miracles and all our petty twentieth-century problems would be solved. It was the gateway to the Grand and Shining Future. After all, the crew of the Enterprise didn’t have to worry about nuclear war or STDs or poverty in Africa. This was supposed to be the time where we made the first steps toward solving the problems that have bedeviled humanity since the beginning.
Ten years, and we’ve hardly started. What these ten years have taught us is not only that things are worse than we thought, and getting worse faster than we thought they could get, but that people don’t even believe things are getting bad – as if the slow death of the Arctic ice cap or the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or the ticking timebomb that is the tens of billions of tons of greenhouse gases in melting northern permafrost is on the same plane as the question of whether or not the Shroud of Turin is genuine. Then again, it’s hard to care about the environment when you’ve been fired or laid off or made redundant or what have you and you don’t know where you’re going to find money for food or rent.
My first reaction to think post was to recall “The Future,” the first track on Prince’s 1989 Batman soundtrack, where Prince sings against a foreboding funk guitar that he plans to “drink six razor blades, razor blades in a paper cup” because he has “seen the future, and boy, it’s rough.” My second reaction was to recall the Times‘ correspondents’ various predictions, including the speculation that Conrad Black might have some of his convictions reversed and Avatar might sweep the Oscars.
My third reaction? The pessimism is overblown.
A lot of this is spillover from my own personal situation, sure. the improvement in my quality of life over the past decade has been spectacular. I’m happy, living in an exciting community where I feel comfortable in my own skin and where I can easily connect with all manner of and any number of people, happily belonging to human communities and maintaining human relationships. I would have taken this as a low-probability outcome a decade ago. I certainly can’t dismiss the past decade as so negative as all that. Things can and will improve, but they’ll do so without any low-probability revolutionary transformations.
More of this comes down to my belief that we really are making things much better. When I read Charlie Stross’ afterword in his excellent 2004 Atrocity Archives, I was struck by his defense of that book’s melange of horror and spy fiction on the grounds that it fit with the realities of the Cold War, that one moment you could walking around in a thriving metropolis and the next you’d be standing with your skin burned off your city’s poisoned ruins, one of many cities so blasted on a poisoned world. That future didn’t happen, not for want of the necessary technology, but because the people responsible for the use of these technologies didn’t want that kind of world.
Things, Steven Pinker demonstrated earlier this year, have been generally improving for some time, as people and societies have tended (over the longue durée) to become civilized, to respond to problems not with anger and amusement but with a real sense of concern that’s manifested in action. Effective action, too; Doug Saunders recently wrote about this in the Globe and Mail. Contrary to the apocalyptic predictions made at the end of the milennium, entire continents haven’t collapsed into chaos; poor people and countries have become substantially better off; human suffering is being alleviated. Civilization, it turns out, is winning. There will be problems, yes.
This will not be an easy time ahead: Wealthy countries are facing a 3 per cent cut in their economy for as long as a decade while they pay off their bailout debts. Aging populations will force them to pay steeper bills for pensions and medicine. And they will probably have to pay for carbon-emission reductions, just as they are attempting to extricate themselves from the financial crisis.
The war in Afghanistan, and its repercussions in Pakistan, are not going to be easy to resolve. And the cultural tensions caused by immigration are not going to go away: Most Western countries, to cover all those costs, will be forced to take in hundreds of thousands of people from the developing world each year.
In the past decade, we avoided many worse fates through a series of developments that most of us missed. In the future, we’ll have to pay closer attention. The southern and eastern three-quarters of the globe are pivotal to the areas that have the greatest effect on us – energy and emissions, exports and equities, technology and terrorism.
We have adapted in certain ways – by shifting our military expenditures from Europe to Central Asia; by pursuing the Millennium Development Goals, the UN’s plan to reduce the most extreme forms of poverty by 2015; and by replacing the worn-out G8 with former Prime Minister Paul Martin’s idea of a G20. In the decade ahead we will have to work even harder just to keep pace.
All we know for sure is that it will not be a repeat of the past 10 years. In 2007, the statistician-philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined what may be the decade’s most descriptive axiom: “History does not crawl, it jumps.” History has exploded from the least likely corners; spurious events unsettled our surest expectations. The 2010s will be volatile, unpredictable, dangerous – but not what we hope, and not what we fear.
I expect the world to have problems, Canada to have problems, Toronto to have problems, certainly me to have problems, I don’t think that we live in the best of all possible worlds, but I don’t think that we live in the worst one, either. I know that “something good is going to happen” to us all without any low-probability revolutions or miracles. (Unless something completely unexpected comes, but I can’t be fairly blamed for that.)
(“Oh, I, Oh, I.”)
Happy New Year!
The news of Harper’s postponement of the next session of the Canadian Parliament was bumped from the lead position on the CBC’s The National nightly broadcast by the news that five Canadians–one journalist, four soldiers–have been killed in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device.
I’ve complained here about the many problems with Canada’s role in Afghanistan, , most relating to the lack of any clear reason why Canada’s there or why Canada has to deal with such a lazily corrupt regime as Karzai’s. Reluctantly, though, I have to agree with the sentiments of this Matthew Yglesias post that Noel sent me a while back.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon has done a lot of reporting on Afghan women over the years and writes for The Daily Beast that there’s little support for the departure of American troops among the organizations doing work with Afghan women and girls:
Even while some political activists and pundits in Washington and London sound the call for a full troop withdrawal, women here argue that a complete pullback would only exacerbate the battery of formidable problems plaguing their struggling nation. Though nearly all say the international community could have done a far better job in securing a teetering Afghanistan, where practically every citizen can now rattle off a personal tale of corruption, few women say they believe foreign forces should go. In a series of conversations with a dozen women leaders spanning a range of sectors, from health care to business to politics, some of whom rarely speak to journalists, the consensus was that existing troops must stay for now—if only because things would be far worse were they to leave. Insecurity would rise, the Taliban would gain power, and women and girls would immediately lose ground.
I think the best thing to say is that American troops aren’t in Afghanistan in order to help Afghan women, and there are a lot of things America could do in the world that would be more effective ways of advancing women’s rights if that were our primary goal, but Afghan women are nonetheless beneficiaries of the mission.
That said, when it comes to military operations you can’t just bracket the question of feasibility. If the administration’s plan is fatally flawed and simply leads to several more years of fighting followed by inevitable withdrawal and Taliban takeover, then we’re not actually helping anyone. This is why things like Richard Just’s insistence on trying to understand everything through a lens of “realism” versus “idealism” are so annoying. If the administration has a workable plan to bring stability to Afghanistan, then implementing that plan will have humanitarian benefits. But if the plan’s not workable, then it’s not workable, and it doesn’t matter how idealistic or ambitious you try to make it.
I guess we’ll have to find out if the new plan will work out and Afghanistan will stumble towards something better and safer. I can hardly wait.