It’s that time of year, right? In fact, that time of the decade – the cusp between one and the next. From the teens to the twenties. So it’s time for my review of the last (what went wrong) and a forward perspective over what’s coming (trends to watch). Except, no.
Recently I asked a group of eminent and wise people for reasons for optimism. There is these days a bias towards pessimism that is simultaneously understandable, debilitating and tedious. I wanted to push back and get eminent wise help in doing so.
Optimism of the intellect
But I was a bit demanding: what I wanted was not optimism of the will to set against pessimism of the intellect. It’s fine to be optimistic because you’re a cheerful, hopeful person (I am too) but, on that evening, it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted something positive from the intellect too – evidence-based optimism, if you like.
When I say that the group I challenged like this was eminent and wise, I should specify that it was most members of the Governing Board of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), my employers. Beyond that, I won’t attribute their responses individually.
Between them, they came up with some big, evidence-based reasons for thinking everything is not going to hell in the proverbial hand basket. That doesn’t mean the bad stuff isn’t real – the climate crisis, more armed conflicts, crisis of arms control, toxic geopolitics, higher military spending and arms sales, rise of nationalist populism and accompanying cultural and racial prejudices, the crisis of air pollution, increasing water shortages, and more. It just means they are not the only things that are happening, which is important to recall and remind ourselves about as much as we can.
Evidence and reasons
- Poverty alleviation continues. Though world hunger is again on the rise, fewer people live below the poverty line.
- The role of women in politics and government is increasing in many, many countries. While gender discrimination and sexual harassment remain too widely acceptable, assumptions about the role, status and capacities of women that were commonplace even three decades ago are under fire.
- The evidence that cooperation works for individuals and organisations is simply too powerful to ignore, which is important when the world is faced with a series of crises and challenges that can be handled only through international cooperation.
- One of today’s big worries is to do with communications and information technologies – the cyber and artificial intelligence revolutions. But new communications technologies have always been disruptive until they are not. Their absorption happened, the worst was averted, and the fixes were not (and will not be) all that complicated.
- In some countries, the pushback against regressive politics is already happening. There is a cyclic pattern to politics. Though a worrying number of elected governments espouse anti-democratic attitudes, democracy as a system of government is not in retreat. Measured in that way, the world is more democratic today than than it has ever been.
- In the same light, while the wave of popular protests around the world in 2019 (among others, Hong Kong, Chile, Ecuador, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan and Catalonia) is, seen from one angle, a source of concern because people get hurt and repression may follow, it is also a sign of people wanting, demanding change.
- And in that same light, the climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests mark a distinct and welcome sharpening of general awareness of the enormous environmental challenges the world faces. It is not universal and it is not yet reflected properly in action by governments but we are getting there.
- We know more. More than we ever have about problems and solutions. The instruments for finding a way out of all our present messes are to hand, which is better than if they were not.
- The practice and institutions of diplomacy are still strong. Even governments whose leaders express loathing of diplomatic means find it next to impossible to do without them.
Ingredients for a sunrise
The world faces some severe problems today. Four ingredients for addressing them are good knowledge of the problems and how to handle and mitigate them, a democratic mandate for doing so, strong social movements demanding action, and the diplomatic means for ensuring the problems are addressed cooperatively and in fair ways.
Somewhere in the nine points above, that combination of ingredients comes into relatively clear view.