What was the decade of the '00s about? What trends showed up in the last 10 years that will set the stage for the '10s? The following nine trends are a snapshot of some of the driving forces we're dealing with now at the turn of the decade.
1. The rich got really, really rich, and then got a spanking. During the irrational exuberance of the '90s and early '00s, it seemed like anybody should be able to get rich betting on bubbles. Pundits predicted there would be no end to the expansion of wealth and that we had transcended the business cycle. But the dot com bubble burst, then the housing bubble, and the financial bubble. Most of the rich are still rich--the bailouts made sure of that. But driving a Bentley is now considered poor taste, and populist anger is growing. The gap between rich and poor is growing, too, while the ladder out of poverty is splintering.
2. Middle class existence went from steadily stagnant to downright precarious.
Necessities like housing, energy, food, education, and medical care all climbed, while incomes stagnated. Families survived by working increasing hours, and by going into debt, using their homes as collateral. When the Great Recession hit, we learned that being middle class had been a bubble, too. And the billions that Wall Street took in bailouts hasn't "trickled down" to ordinary people or to the real economy.
3. Mother Earth came up to bat. At the beginning of the decade, it was just the environmentalists, scientists, and some very forward-looking elected officials talking about the hazards of climate change, along with the insurance companies that have to pay for the increasing rates of wild fires, floods, and other climate-related disasters. Today, Pentagon brass, business owners, religious leaders, farmers, foresters, and people at all levels of government are seeing the danger and looking for ways to stop the disruption of the climate. The global leaders at Copenhagen struck out, but Mother Earth bats last.
4. We found a new enemy. We called the enemy "terror," and we made war on it. Rather than use proven counter-terrorism strategies of sophisticated police work plus intelligence, the Bush administration used the shock of 9/11 to justify ultimately futile invasions and occupations. Then they added torture and a crack-down on civil liberties abroad and at home. It's hard to measure the costs in traumatized civilians and soldiers, the dead and dying, refugees and broken societies, billions of added national debt, and the tarnished reputation of the United States. But here's one gauge: Invading Afghanistan has already helped bring down one superpower. The '00s set the stage for us to follow the Soviet Union's example.
5. First we hated government. Later, we loved it. Government was revealed at its worst during Hurricane Katrina, when sheriff deputies blocked fleeing citizens from crossing a bridge to safety and the federal government offered little more than black booted Blackwater guards to maintain "security" and a morale-boosting "Good job, Brownie!" from the commander in chief. Maybe it's to be expected that a president who hates government would turn over emergency preparedness to cronies and crooks. On the other hand, when the uber-greed of Wall Street threatened to bring the global economy to its knees, it turned out government could act quickly and effectively to keep the money flowing.
6. The Republican Party collapsed as a trusted force for reasoned governance, driven into the ground by the incompetence of its president, by unjustifiable and devastating military campaigns, and by policies that turned the economy over to corporate powers, who took it over a cliff. Economic fundamentalism and neoconservativism are now understood to be dystopian fantasies, and all that's left for those who remain in the party is to flail around with tea bagging, climate denial, and attempts to kill anything that doesn't bolster the military-industrial complex, the wealthy, and big business.
7. The Democratic Party collapsed as a trusted force for reasoned governance when, in spite of having an overwhelming mandate from the American people for real change, elected officials allowed corporations and their lobbyists to call the shots on health care reform, regulation of Wall Street speculation, and climate legislation. The resulting policies shored up the stock market but did little to help ordinary people, who became increasingly alienated from the party.
8. China continued its rapid ascent, moving quietly into position to become the next superpower. The U.S. debt to China, coupled with the transfer of most manufacturing capacity abroad--especially to China--hampered efforts to rebuild the U.S. economy, and weakened our global position. (This is one more outcome of corporate power, to add to 1-7 above.)
9. We began to hear whispers of the End Times, including the best selling post-rapture "Left Behind" series, the new disaster flick 2012, and the prophesies related to the Mayan calendar (Google it, and you'll get over 8 million hits). The real end times might be more straightforward. At the same time Wall Street wealth was soaring (with a short setback in 2008), the '00s witnessed a crash in the real wealth that keeps civilizations alive: fresh water, climate stability, trust and solidarity with fellow human beings, reliable public infrastructure, healthy soil and forests, resilient agriculture, sound governance, livelihoods that can meet basic necessities. Our way of life is increasingly precarious as we import much more than our fair share of the world's declining supply of fossil energy and of other resources, bring the climate to the brink of runaway change. The end times of this consumption lifestyle are, indeed, upon us.
But wait, there are signs, too, that people are pulling out of this downward spiral. In the '00s, people around the world turned away from obsolete ways of life, and went to work building the foundations of a world where our families and communities can thrive along with the natural systems that we rely on. The seeds are already planted. In my next column, I'll list the 12 innovations begun in the '00s that we can build on in the 2010s.
Sarah van Gelder is executive editor of YES! Magazine, a national media organization that links powerful ideas and practical action toward a just and sustainable world.