The world is going through a downturn, which doesn't make for happiness, yet I think the larger trends are surprisingly hopeful. News cycles are fueled by bad news, and ratings must be kept up with impending disasters, whatever it takes to keep the tension high. The evening news gives the impression of a world lurching from crisis to crisis, playing brinkmanship ten times a week.
This is largely not so, however. Looking at the big picture, we might pre-empt history's negative judgments. At the very least, global events have a good and bad side. It is realistic to balance the two in our minds, not simply assume that the worst possibility is negative.
Trend #1: Globalism. The negative view holds that China will come to dominate the world, leading to a loss of prestige and power for the U.S. Rising economies like India, Southeast Asia, and China will drive the price of oil ever skyward. Jobs and technology will inexorably drift out of the control of America.
The positive view is far more convincing to me. What we are seeing is the rise of the dispossessed. Massive sectors of humanity -- the billions living in Asia, primarily -- are being allowed to taste a life of dignity and even comfort. This bespeaks a rising consciousness across the globe. We don't know what that rising tide will bring, but it's fatalistic and at times reactionary to fear it. America will prosper to the extent that we guide globalism in a good direction.
Trend #2: Turmoil in the Arab world. We hardly need to repeat the negative side of jihadism and the terror it has spread. By stoking unrealistic fear of extremism, politicians have created a monster whose tentacles reach everywhere. Now the same fear is being stirred up over the Arab Spring and the possibility that countries like Iraq and Egypt will become Islamist states.
The positive side in this case requires some real faith. It seems inevitable that Islamic countries must go through a period of convulsion. With a defeated history, lack of education, oil bribery of the masses, and military dictatorships, the Middle East has fallen behind the world by whole centuries. Democracy and mass education are needed, but more than that, a sector of the world that is nostalgic for the good times of the 15th century and the Ottoman Empire cannot sustain itself. It's a race between the mullahs and the iPod, and in the long run the iPod will win. Despite the rage of the Arab street, the coming generation of Muslims wants more than ever to enter the modern world.
Trend #3: War. The negative view of the future holds that security means constant preparation for war. With national boundaries becoming more leaky, danger lurks everywhere. Military might is the ace that a super power must never surrender. The price of freedom is a defense budget larger than the next sixteen countries in the world. America has been on a war footing since Pearl Harbor, seventy years ago, and that, they consider, is the correct posture.
The positive side, well documented by statistics, is that war is a declining activity. Starting around 1980, deaths from major conflicts and civil wars have steadily declined. Despite the horrors of Bosnia and Rwanda, nothing like the mass slaughter of the two World Wars has been repeated. Actual losses through terrorism, including American deaths in combat, are a tiny fraction of even the Vietnam War. The rise of more terrifying forms of mechanized death hasn't led to these weapons being used.
Trend #4: Despotism. The negative side is that too many societies live under repressive, reactionary regimes. Until this year, democracy seemed all but unthinkable in the Middle East. China and Russia are heavily armed, repressive states. Africa is dominated by ruthless strong men. Human rights violations continue to be horrifyingly present across the globe.
Here the positive side is a historical trend that seems unstoppable. Whatever the ups and downs of individual countries, more than 80 despotic governments have fallen in the past 40 years. Convulsions that appear on the front page every day shouldn't mask a trend that is strongly away from despotism, and this includes the advances, however slow they are, in Russia and China.
Trend #5: Epidemics. The negative is easy to see. After 30 years of intensive research, AIDS hasn't been cured. Africa is a sinkhole of epidemic disease reaching beyond AIDS to cholera and malaria. With a meteoric rise in international travel, an outbreak of SARS or swine flu in some remote spot on the globe could explode overnight into a worldwide pandemic, and our defenses are weakening as "super bugs" defy treatment with antibiotics.
The positive side here centers on social confidence and the will to create change. AIDS infections have leveled off for the first time, and if sufficient funding were provided, most of the other epidemics in the world, including cholera and malaria, could be brought under control without any miracle breakthroughs. Most deaths from epidemics are now completely needless. This may seem like a bleak way to state a positive fact, considering that the funding to wipe out epidemics isn't forthcoming enough, but for the average healthy citizen around the world, the future holds a longer life in good health than ever before.
Trend #6: Overpopulation. On the negative side, our planet is threatened chiefly by too many people squeezing out a limited supply of food, water, air, and fuel. In the coming century the world's population is expected to crest at 9 billion people. Giving them even a minimal quality of life and escape from squalor poses enormous difficulties. Precious resources are quickly running out. Soon we may see wars fought over oil, if not over clean water and basic food supplies.
The positive side is that the most populous countries, such as China and India, are moving upward despite massive population growth. With the proper social management, there is enough food and water for an expanding humanity, but this requires the will to improve living conditions for hundreds of millions of poor people. Sadly, the will is lacking or lagging in too many places. But the same drive that makes everyone want a better life is always at work. A place like Africa, which can be viewed as chronically hopeless, in fact has turned into a high-growth economy in recent years.
Trend #7: Climate change. Here the negative side has been so widely, and frighteningly, publicized that fear has turned to exhaustion. Polls show that people are less interested in global warming than ten years ago. A backlash against environmentalism is ever stronger on the right. Science is being ignored as the latest dangerous symptom is announced on the climate front. Even if agreement were unanimous, though, the world is decades behind in finding a way to reduce greenhouse gases. The best we can hope for is to maintain the status quo, and yet the status quo is already a deep threat to the ecology.
The positive side of climate change centers on two words, ingenuity and adaptability. Every advanced country has cadres of ingenious entrepreneurs working on alternative fuels and methods for reversing the greenhouse effect. There is no doubt that the problem is expanding faster than the possible solutions, which is why adaptability is necessary. Climate change comes down to the weather, and human beings adapt to very, very bad weather. As a species we have learned to survive in the harshest climatic conditions. That sounds like cold comfort, but it's in the nature of change that people walk to the brink of crisis -- and then a few feet further -- before top priority is given to finding a solution. We aren't at the point of taking climate change seriously, which is lamentable. But there is no doubt that we will adapt and survive.
These seven are the bleakest trends that reasonable people worry over (as opposed to those who worry about apocalypse and the coming wrath of God). They all have a positive side. The point isn't that you have to believe the positive and ignore the negative. The two sides are intimately linked and inescapable. But you can align yourself with the positive side. Trends are like mass votes cast by every person in the world. The vote is cast at the level of consciousness. In order to cast a meaningful vote, you must know the issues thoroughly, which means that your best weapon against the endemic bleakness on the evening news is to look toward the light. If history is any guide, the light and the darkness wager a very close fight. Even so, why waste your awareness on the side you don't want to win?
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