Zoom out and take a longer view, and there are good reasons to muster a new confidence for the 2020sby Tom Clark / December 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
Perhaps it was because 2019 was quite so grinding that as the nights drew in, there was little excitement, or even acknowledgement, about the dawn of a new decade. The 2010s had begun with stagnant economics, and ended with angry politics. They were years lived in the long shadow of the financial crisis, and as we emerge blinking from them, if we dare to look ahead at all, we mostly do so with trepidation. There are some good reasons to be fearful, as threats from climate change to dangerous new nuclear standoffs (see Jeffrey Lewis) hove into view around the world. And in Britain, where the weight of the Brexit business remains overwhelming as well as divisive, there is a special temptation to hunker down and wish away the challenges that lie further down the road.
But zoom out and take a longer view, and there are also good reasons to muster a new confidence for the 2020s. Over many centuries, human beings have had to confront seemingly intractable problems—from the population boom that Thomas Malthus said would ruin us in the 18th century, to the arrival of an atom bomb that could easily have wiped us out in the 20th. And yet by answering them with human ingenuity, not only have we survived, we’ve also rescued a growing proportion of humanity from the nasty, brutish and short lives that used to be almost everyone’s lot. And for the last quarter-century Prospect—which turns 25 in 2020—has played its own part in applying the intelligence of today’s sharpest thinkers to the problems of tomorrow, which is exactly what we seek to do again in this, our Winter double issue.
We call on several of the World’s Top 50 Thinkers, as saluted in our pages back in the summer, together with other experts in their fields, to come up with a new idea for the new decade. What makes their suggestions bracing is that they are at once both bold and believable. Why shouldn’t we, as Camilla Cavendish urges us, be able to stop panicking defensively about the demographic transition, and put oomph into getting the most out of longer lives? Why can’t we plan effectively against the real risk of a pandemic, something Peter Frankopan points out needn’t be expensive if we only face up to what needs to be done? What, aside from a lack of political will, is stopping us from forcing multinationals to pay their taxes, if needs be by working across borders? (Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.)
And why shouldn’t we try to get liberal democracy back on the front foot, by—as Cas Mudde urges—rediscovering the positive case for the system which has, for all its current trials, allowed humanity to manage its disagreements more harmoniously than any other yet devised? On the world stage, the immediate chances of reaffirming such norms could be affected by who emerges in control of the White House at the end of this new year. Will Donald Trump defy the current attempt to rein him in by using the ground rules of the constitution (see Sam Tanenhaus)? Or might the crown pass to a determined progressive reformer in the mould of Elizabeth Warren, who Emily Tamkin profiles this issue?
Here in Britain, a useful practical step towards resetting our rageful politics could be taken if—as Rafael Behr argues—pending works on the Palace of Westminster were seized on as an occasion to experiment with a less confrontational theatre of debate. And as the Brexit saga reaches its (at least initial) denouement, we might take the chance, too, to reconsider our national story (David Olusoga) and reflect anew on who we think we are, as Peter Pomerantsev’s account of being a non-English Englishman forces us to do.
Even the deepest problems that blight our society, such as the iron grip of class divisions (which I examine in an essay this month), need not be shunted into the “too difficult” box. Instead, we should draw confidence from the way that we can, on occasion, make surprisingly rapid progress by facing the future. Britain’s breakneck green energy transition, which leaves the Germans and others looking on in envy (Adam Tooze), provides one heartening case in point. The spark of technology has set a blaze through a sector adaptable enough to change. If sparks from more bright ideas—and you can catch plenty more of them in our books of the year—are allowed to catch light, then we can still make this coming decade the new Roaring Twenties.