Far back in the 20th century, Baby-Boomers had to get used to what we might call blockbuster pessimism. We can indeed think backwards to 1972 and the Club of Rome with its Limits to Growth proposition or to 1982’s The Global 2000 Report to the President – Entering the Twenty-First Century (with its catchpenny strap : Commissioned By Carter/Disregarded by Reagan).
As this is an anniversary year for both works, one can indeed expect many invitations to think backwards thus and to wonder why, with so many elaborate warnings to hand, the world never got itself pure and clean in time for the 21st century. As they say in Ayrshire, yous wiz telt – and at least one voice in the CoR is claiming that the world “hit the snooze button” in 1972. Had it taken action then, the world could have avoided the fossil-fuel despoliation which so vexes activists and publics today. COP26 was thus, one might say, two generations too late.
It is a cheap criticism that the blockbusters do not read so well today. They reflect, after all, the policy obsessions of the time, talking at some length about the production of various minerals, the play of crop yields amid the Green Revolution and – most emphatically of all perhaps – the disruptions caused and possibly rendered permanent by unconstrained population growth. But it is being retroactively argued this very day that their heart was beating loud in very much the right place, in a plea for restraint and moderation in order to alter the course of what became known and named as the predicament of mankind. That they are quite sedulously and often agri-chemically detailed and in that sense superannuated is a critique that would miss the point. And what if precise forecasts were offered for GNP growth in countries which no longer exist? The substance of what was said was and is, as it were and after all, nourishingly correct.
Well, yes and no.
Firstly, a prevailing assumption within so many long-term forecasts is that one ought to expect a natural limit to technological innovation, that science alone will not dig the human race out of its own mire, that no boffin can alter the dire arithmetic of a swelling population within a fixed land-mass. But in science and indeed, interactively, in politics, it is just hard for anyone to envisage what does not yet, even as a blueprint, exist. The authors of late 20th century gloom could not see what was coming and had, largely as a result, no basis for optimism – or, really, foresight.
O, as Robert Burns once podcasted, wad some Power the giftie gie us! As we write, virtually every home in the UK has internet access. By the early years of this century, a majority of citizens had the net under hand and could and did use email. The Amazon is not really anymore an exotic river and googling is no longer something you do, with luck, in the back row of the cinema. The Berlin Wall was demolished in 1989 and communism formally perished. Not so long ago, some Western economies endured inflation rates in excess of 20% and before long we all ran into the credit crunch and the collapse of Barings and Lehman Bros. Recession came to howl like the rainstorm while religious fundamentalism gouged huge lumps out of human wellbeing in Europe, USA, Africa and Asia. AIDS came and stayed, specially in Africa. We awake in the century’s third decade to find ourselves anxious about pandemics, political corruption, red-neckery, racism, military bullying and adventurism, ideological consolidations and human rights abuses, the weakness of international collectivist institutions and – as we shall shortly review – the dilapidated state of the planet. Let us just say for now that as we descry the year 2050 on the horizon life is just not what it used to be and that those specific forecasts that would illuminate the world of even five years hence are bound to be deeply questionable. Like the lord Hamlet says, this was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof; the forecasting business has learned a lot of humility over the years.
(Nobody is really, by the way, talking about that end of history anymore. But maybe, these days, about the last man…).
Secondly, what did we really lose in the fire? A scan through various multiple international statistics will reveal that since Don McLean first delivered American Pie as a single all those decades ago life for millions of proletarian families and those born into what might justifiably be called pre-industrial societies has gotten a whole lot better.
Though it can be a weak guide on its own, worldwide GDP per capital in 1972 we note was $991; by 2020, this figure had risen to $10,910 (current US dollars/World Bank).
The UN tells us that 1.9 billion souls were living in extreme poverty in 1991; by 2015, this had fallen to 836 million. That this latter figure is still so obscenely high must not blind us to the progress that has been made – and certainly not to the requirement to eliminate all extreme poverty as an absolute and overriding political priority.
Also, infant mortality fell by 50% in this same period (1990-2015) while Official Development Assistance grew by 66% in real terms.
The killer condition known as malaria has been much reduced across the world while smallpox was effectively eliminated as far back as 1980. Meanwhile, female life expectancy rose from 62 in 1972 to 75 in 2019.
Now, one appreciates that there will be those who say that such gains came at the price of serious ecological despoliation but one has therefore the right to ask which of the human advances thus made – and we offer but a small sample above – should now be either deprecated or reversed. Which?
We may, children of the Paris Accords across the Western world, now deplore the heavy industries – mining, shipbuilding, steel-making, car manufacture, oil exploration – and are happy to see them disappear from our communities. But in Europe and in North America, they gave often lifelong income opportunities to the wealthless working classes. Along the way, utterly conventional and these days much derided GDP growth buttressed the supply of reasonably advanced public services – pensions, healthcare, benefits – while holding out the prospect of ever improving living standards to millions. Those living standards, let’s note in passing, included the expectation of regular holidays (also much abominated) by warm beaches and heated pools and en suite hotels – features that could have been unrealizable fantasies for pre-War proletarians everywhere.
It is unanswerable that the planet has overheated and that any definition/expectation of normal life is thus under severe threat. However, denial is, contrary to much think-tank activism, is very much a minority sport; the real challenge for all concerned is, first of all, to act as if we live in the real world where a) millions are going this very day to get no dinner and, were they to need one, no doctor and b) plenty of governments think that ecologism is no more than a geo-political game, one in which the democracies can take all the blame. The striking thing now about the blockbusters of yesteryear was just how much they bodyswerved the often grimly insensitive politics of the prevailing world order but wanted, in the same breath, clarifying leadership from Europe and America.
The goal has to be to feed the hungry forthwith, fight for the quality of social justice that will see absolute poverty disappear in this century, allow and indeed stimulate international trade in agricultures/ pharmaceuticals/ robotics/ finance/ material goods, encourage global GDP growth … while de-fossilising energy, stimulating renewables, universalizing (as far and as fast as possible) best eco-practice in food production/ land management…. both at the same time!
Hellishly difficult but totally necessary.