How will historians in 50 years look back on the first ten years of this century? Will they name it the “decade of terror” as the Financial Times (and lots of other media) suggest? Not if you look at the number of people (one in every 10,000 deaths) killed by terror acts, according to Canadian journalist and historian Gwynne Dyer (“The United States empire takes a hit in the ‘Noughties’").
Will it go into history as the “bubble decade”, as CNBC proposes?
Or should we call it the “decade of climate change” (National Geographic), focusing once again on one of the symptoms and not the root cause of what went wrong in the last ten years?
But maybe we should not concentrate on the “bads” and look at the “goods”, the lessons we learned during the last ten years. That is what Paul Krugman does in the NY Times (“The Big Zero”). He looks at all that was promised at the beginning of the decade, the “economic triumphalism” (the New Economy, the Lisbon Knowledge Society) and what was really achieved: “zero job creation”, “zero economic gains for the typical family”, “zero gains” for homeowners and for stocks. No, “what was truly impressive about the decade past … was our unwillingness … to learn from our mistakes”, says Krugman, and he concludes rightly: “So let’s bid a not at all fond farewell to the Big Zero — the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing. Will the next decade be better?”
Before I try to answer that question, let me try to give this decade its proper name. What about the “decade of ecological limits”? I know it might not sound as good as some of the alternatives mentioned but I think it will be closer to what historians will make of it in 40 years’ time.
Because, let’s face it, what we discovered this decade, is that our exuberant, materialistic and consumption-driven Western way of life, when imitated and reproduced by others (China, India, Brazil), will undermine the very fundamentals on which it is built (healthy ecosystems, social cohesion, cheap energy).
Climate change, peak oil, biodiversity collapse, water scarcity and other threats have brought back the debate of the unjustly forgotten and underestimated Club of Rome’s ‘limits to growth” and all the hopes of “green capitalism” born from a new social contract or Green New Deal will still have to prove its ability to live within these new limits. We will need a new global narrative on what is real prosperity and how to achieve it. There are signs of the beginning of this paradigm change but a real working alternative is still a long way off.
I think the next decade will be a decade of protecting (ecosystems and people), conserving (peace and prosperity) and sharing (resources and wealth). What this means for politics is unclear. I am not convinced the current return to neo-Keynesianism and state intervention (which is generally personified by leftist policies) is the right way. We could well see the rise of a new social and ecological conservatism based on values and a new humanistic spirituality.
Whatever 2010 will bring in terms of economic recovery, it will only be a temporary phenomenon and the age of permanent recessions (every time a bit worse) may well be upon us. Others have called this the “long descent”.
The next decade we will hit more of these ecological (and social) limits and if we do not learn to live within these limits, there will be lots of violence, wars and suffering. The “spirit of Copenhagen” does not bode well for the future. Could we be on our way to a repeat of the first fifty years of the 20th century, where we needed two world wars before learning our lessons?