Saturday, 6 February 2016

Towards an age of hope

Last week we looked at the reasons why a politics of rage appears to be taking hold across a lot of the developed world. Across Left and Right, people bellow at you now as if you're engaged in some sort of civil war; scream about immigration and cultural change as if our societies are on the brink of coming apart; throw their toys out of the pram the moment you present some data (a matter for argument and interpretation as that must always be). Sure enough, we do face some enormous strategic challenges. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is puzzling over what to do about Russian revanchism in the East, while every week the risk of a miscalculation over Scotland, Sweden or the borders of Turkey and Syria seems to increase. Somewhere in the Chinese banking system there is probably lurking a very, very nasty serious of surprises indeed - perhaps risking a repeat of the world financial meltdown of 2007-2008. And all the while there is the uneasy and growing sense that, long term, the human race may be the greatest threat to its own survival, the increasing risks associated with runaway global warming becoming starker all the time. Frightened? If you're not at least a little bit worried, you are seriously lacking in imagination.

But you know what? There are also enormous grounds for hope - countervailing forces which rub up or run against the politics of rage that we looked at last week. We promised last time to list these, too. So let's look at just three of them.

Extraordinary young people. Most pictures of young people that you see in the news see them poring over books as they get more and more stressed about exams, or else flaked out on the pavement after a big and boozy night out. Now there is no doubt that western societies over-emphasise academic qualifications, with deleterious effects on young people's stress levels and mental health. Most such countries also have problems with binge drinking on Friday and Saturday nights. True. But actually this generation of under-25s is one of the finest cohorts ever to have passed through the West's schools and universities. Serious, sober, committed, informed and articulate, they are now staffing campaigns such as Bernie Sanders' shot at the Democratic nomination in the US with so much passion and energy that it's a thing to behold (and make you smile). They drink less. They smoke less. They take fewer drugs. They get better qualifications. They care more. They speak up more. Their grasp of gender issues, bullying, identify, evidence and argument take your breath away. They don't vote as much as their more senior fellow-citizens, but have you seen the choice on offer lately? For all the recent controversies about safe spaces and the denial of platforms, for all the many problems with getting rid of statues such as that of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford, at least the young people calling for that to happen care about something. Ask yourself this: when did you last speak up for a cause as strongly as those Oxford students do, or express it so passionately?

Scientific breakthroughs. It's hard to know where to start on this one, really. Maybe a list of the head-spinning progress that we're making on energy and efficiency will do the trick. Moroccan solar arrays designed to be the biggest in the world, and to power the country into the twenty-first century (above). Rapidly falling solar power costs. Massive increases in car engine efficiency and shifts in consumer preferences towards less fuel-hungry engines, moving California and then the rest of the world towards a much, much lower carbon emissions future. German renewables progress replacing nuclear power. There's a reason the price of energy is falling, and it's not just due to US fracking. It's because it might get cheaper (and cleaner) for generations to come. Or maybe we should look at medical progress? Gene mapping for mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, holding out the hope of medical progress on that front. Rapidly improving cancer care - and results, with better and earlier diagnosis combining with new drugs to push death rates right down. Life expectancy averages, also driven by all those falls in drinking, smoking and eating processed foods, that look likely to go on surging upwards - towards living into our late 80s by the time we reach the 2030s. There's no need for us to go on: you get the picture. We can push back the threat of global warming; we can greatly reduce pollution; we can conquer diseases which once had us terrified. It's happening now.

Declines in world poverty. One thing you usually won't hear - either on Left or Right - is just how successful the post-Cold War age of the World Trade Organisation and the wireless economy have been in reducing absolute want. It's not just a shallow line bearing down on need: it's a vertiginous, dizzying decline in the numbers of people living below incomes at which they can feed themselves and gain access to clean water. Now there are many reasons for this. The first is an emphasis on governance, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, that went by the by in the age of the Cold War - when Washington and Moscow sent out their satraps to fight each other with not a thought for how corrupt or just how downright nasty their clients really were. The second and perhaps more important reason is that even poor countries can now rapidly adopt cheap and light technology that allows them to jump ahead, in just the same way that we understand the eighteenth and nineteenth century's two industrial revolutions within the framework of that catch up and convergence that is likely to occur given a free trade in ideas. Now there is plenty of injustice and corruption in the world right now, but it goes challenged - by the UN, by aid agencies, on social media. Africa is emergent. China is on the rise. The great disruption, the rise of Europe and its offshoots from the seventeenth century onwards which made the world less and less equal, is now closing. Although inequality within many states has increased since the 1990s (not by very much at all in the UK, by the way, or at least not yet), the world has been getting quite a lot more equal overall. This is having explosive geopolitical consequences, of course - not least growing Chinese assertiveness - but also with the upshot that you are just much, much, much less likely to go to bed hungry than you were in the 1980s.

Nothing we've written here should be taken as complacency or triumphialism. Far from it. The risks of nuclear proliferation, the world credit system's weaknesses and climate change are very high indeed, and the consequences of getting policy judgements on them wrong might well be catastrophic. But young people's outspoken and articulate dynamism, technological progress, the changing context of human life and longevity themselves, and our shared victories over want and disease can and will change the picture. We've done so, so well that it would be churlish to talk about the politics of rage without understanding the mechanics of progress.

You can criticise Western governments and cultures all you like. Since 1945, they have together built the richest, most stable, most democratic and most egalitarian free choice societies that world history has ever known. That helps to explain the enormous anger we see in our politics in one way, of course - because those who feel excluded from these great leaps forward are battering on the doors of the powerful with grievances and differences even more acute than in the decades when everything seemed lost anyway. But it should also allow us to say this, loud and clear: the merchants of fury are wrong. On both Left and Right, they've misinterpreted convulsive change as decline. This is simply incorrect. Change is making the world a better place in more ways than is commonly understood. Anger? Innovation and resolution are better. Fifty years ago President Kennedy yoked together faith in the future, and shared confidence in human inventiveness, with a real daring about what was possible in national and international politics. That third element was dependent on the first two, and it still is.

There's hope there. If someone can grasp it again, decode it, give it voice - there's the material for a really new politics of progress. Can anyone do it? Will anyone try?