The best of times, the worst of times: Which future will we choose?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us ….
Hardly an original refrain early in a new year (or decade). To be sure, there is unlikely to be a year that passes without someone remarking it was one or the other. Marking the decadal transition from 2019 into 2020 may seem no different. But while we may question the times we were in and where the needle might be moving – or even whether it is moving at all –
For many, it is argued to be the best of times. Indeed, it is widely claimed that we have just transitioned from the best decade in human history. And it is, of course, manifestly true that on multiple measures things have improved – and continue to improve – for many. We continue to post consistent gains in the quality of life for millions more people, we are reducing global poverty, we have increased GDP more than sevenfold since the 1950s, and health and life expectancy for the majority are better than ever before.
It is difficult to dispute the palpable measures of progress (even if growth in GDP is an increasingly questionable indicator of progress and societal wellbeing). On balance, there is more than sufficient evidence to support the claim that the last 70 years have had more ups than downs, and that we continue to see improvement in quality of life for many. The eloquent (and seemingly timeless) summation of Our Common Future  thus seems to be just as applicable for 2019 as it was in …… 1987:
Those looking for success and signs of hope can find many: infant mortality is falling; human life expectancy is increasing; the proportion of the world’s adults who can read and write is climbing; the proportion of children starting school is rising; and global food production increases faster than the population grows.
Enthusiastic and verifiable testaments to progress notwithstanding, there does seem to be, at least in equal measure, widespread concern around the globe that, on balance, many of us are having to dredge more deeply for hope, belief, vision or trust than we have ever had to before; that the world is becoming more and more ‘VUCA’ – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous – and that it is doing so at a rate so fast it is, in all likelihood, increasingly difficult to assimilate and bounce back from. Survey after survey shows that globally, a significant number of people, especially young people, are feeling anxious, insecure and fearful of the future.
Is this simply existential angst? Anxiety that anticipates the shadow side of what comes with all that is good and well? Is it the ‘normal’ anxiety that every generation feels for the unknowns of the future for its children? Fear of doom and disaster that doesn’t materialise or is averted by the enduring creativity, ingenuity, and innovation of people around the world who continue to seek for ways to inspire, uplift and transform the lives of their communities? Or is it something else? Something far more serious?
There is indisputable evidence to temper a too enthusiastic, self-satisfied acceptance of uncontested progress; multiple signals that warn that if human behaviour continues unrestrained and uncorrected, it will lead, without a shadow of doubt, to the very worst of times. In every decade since the 1960s, including in the WCED Report cited above, observation, measurement and analysis of the data has shown that the profound levels of growth and development we have seen have been achieved whilst – or perhaps by – also giving rise to “trends that the planet and its people can no longer bear”. The famous ‘hockey stick’ graphs of The Great Acceleration, last updated in 2010, show ‘progress’ over the last 100 years; however, looking to the right, they also bear witness to the costs paid by the earth’s systems for the ‘progress’ we have made.
We have been aware of this for almost half a century. Meetings are hosted regularly so that we can discuss the need for change. There are global compacts, commitments to conventions and protocols and seemingly unilateral acceptance of the absolute need to transform how we live in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (2016). We hear the same rhetoric, admonitions and exhortations over and over again, year after year. Without a date stamp, we may even believe that we are listening to messages of today, not of yesteryear.
Despite the negotiations and promises, there are countless reports that indicate that action is not happening or at least not happening in line with science, or with what the world needs, to avoid the worst of times. The UN’s 2019 Report on Progress opened with a clear statement: “Action to meet the Goals is not yet advancing at the speed or scale required. 2020 needs to usher in a decade of ambitious action to deliver the Goals by 2030”.
2019, the year preceding the decade heralded as the last chance for the achievement of the global goals, started with Greta Thunberg’s sobering address beseeching governments, corporations and philanthropists attending the World Economic Forum at Davos to “listen to the science” and take urgent action to salvage some kind of future for people and planet, especially for the youth of today. Her metaphor “our house is on fire”. was brought devastatingly to life in nature. An 80% increase in fires in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest in mid-2019 destroyed more than 17 million acres of forest. The decade ended with Australia seeing record temperatures of above 40°Celsius and runaway bushfires in all states. At the time of writing, these fires were reported to have already burned 18 million acres (an area greater than Belgium and Denmark combined) and released 350 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: more than 50% of Australia’s annual carbon emissions for the year.
Against this backdrop, October saw the 25th COP in Madrid fail (again) to achieve manifest agreement and committed action from the ‘people in power’. Some say that the lack of “any science” at the main governmental event suggests a notable lack of a ‘climate emergency’ in the narrative and negotiations as well as in the continued delays in government leadership to guide a clear, equitable and measurable commitment. What does another inconclusive COP mean for the times we are in? If governments cannot agree on setting out the actions that must be taken for the survival of the people, to whom do we turn? How do we reconcile the “dissonance at multiple scales – personal to multinational – [that] lies behind the climate crisis”, and where can hope be found?
It is evidently not the best of times.
It is at least not only the best of times.
On the ‘up’ side, the 2010s were a decade marked by climate activism on an unprecedented scale. From the first People’s Climate March in 2014, to the first Global Climate March in 2015, the number of cities, countries, organisations and activists hitting the streets has grown exponentially. In the last year, the Skolstrejk för klimatet (School Strike for the Climate) – which started with Thunberg’s solitary action on the steps of the Swedish Parliament in October 2018 – has grown into a global movement also known as #FridaysforFuture. It is a movement which has engaged millions of school children, youth and others every week.
Youth today are rapidly becoming more informed and politically engaged, rejecting inaction and demanding more from governments and business. Joined around the world by movements such as ExtinctionRebellion, this activism that as surely been instrumental in the declaration of a Climate Emergency in many local councils, states and nations, including the UK and the European Parliament. It has also seen a record number of citizen assemblies being established across Europe and in the UK in an effort to ensure more informed, democratic and representative decisions are made on government’s response to the climate emergency. Together these efforts orchestrated the Global Week for Future ahead of a UN meeting in New York in September 2019. That week, more than 4,500 strikes were held in more than 150 countries. There were more than 6 million protestors, many of them schoolchildren and thousands of them scientists.
The best of times? The worst of times?
Probably a messy combination of both.
What is clearer than ever before is that our choices are narrowing. Extinction is a possibility that has gone mainstream. It is surely not an option we want to continue exploring.
Thoughts to be continued …. Comments welcome.
The Impact Trust is an incubator of catalytic impact thinking and practice activation. We believe multiple literacies drive (un)sustainable development and are of paramount importance in determining the strength and sustainability of society. Our focus is on initiatives that support the development of the literacies that build sustainability intelligence and the enactment of empathic global citizenship.
 Charles Dickens (1859) Tale of Two Cities
 World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our Common Future
 Data finds no significant increase in the occurrence of mental health disorders beyond the rate of population growth over the last thirty years. It is noted, however, that the proportion of young people reported to be suffering from mental health challenges seems to have increased.
 World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our Common Future